Dr. Dawg

Margaret Somerville joins the Conservative war on women

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Abortion as a sex selection technique is not much of an issue in Canada, but abortion re-criminalizers are grasping at any straw they can get these days, and the notion is suitably shriek-worthy to get media attention. So it’s not surprising to see McGill-based metaphysician Margaret Somerville back on the anti-abortion warpath.

The idea is being put about by the “focus on the fetus” crowd that those of us who support choice on abortion are running into a serious dilemma.

But it’s a false one.

Is sex selection happening here? Well, no one is certain. Canada is not experiencing measurable gender deficits such as those observed in India and China. More boys than girls continue to be born, which has always been the case, but the sex ratio at birth has actually been experiencing a decline in recent years—that is, fewer boys are being born relative to girls than previously. The current Canadian sex ratio at birth is 1056 boys for every 1000 girls, less than the global sex ratio of 1070 boys/ 1000 girls.

Even the doctor who has alleged that certain immigrant groups in Canada are practising sex selection—Dr. Rajendra Kale, editor of the Canadian Medical Journal—suggests that the numbers are small: “several hundred” such abortions a year (the current number of abortions in Canada annually is about 100,000). And that’s a guess unsupported by hard Canadian evidence.

Demographic gender panic, therefore, would appear to be premature.

But let’s be clear. Sex selection—by which we normally mean preferring boy babies over girl babies—is abhorrent. It assigns a fundamentally lesser value to the female gender. The question is: what do we do about it?

Dr. Kale advocates withholding gender information from the parents-to-be until 30 weeks of gestation. But that’s a foolish dream: it’s too easy to discover the sex of a fetus to make that prohibition remotely practical in 2012.

So why not pass a law to make women behave?

Sex-selection is just the latest tack taken by the anti-choice zealots in their frantic attempts to pry open the abortion debate with precisely that objective. And this is coming when non-coercive measures to reduce abortion, such as contraception and sex education, are already making their impact felt.

For those who have been following Margaret Somerville’s anti-choice peregrinations over the years, it’s no surprise that she has leapt cheerfully and opportunistically into the present fray, beginning with the obligatory caricature of the pro-choice position (note the adroit use of quotation marks without actual quotations):

[A]bortion is a private matter between a woman and her physician, just another medical decision; it’s nobody else’s business and certainly not society’s or the law’s; and the fetus is “just a bunch of cells,” part of the woman’s body not a separate being, a “parasite” she is entitled to get rid of.

She goes on, however, to make what is in fact a fair summation of both the pro-choice view and the practice of sex selection:

Pro-choice advocates have long proposed that whether women can have unfettered access to abortion should be the litmus test of whether a society has respect for women and their rights. They argue this access is required to protect women’s rights to autonomy and self-determination — and to protect their dignity. Ironically, however, sex selection abortion is overwhelmingly the expression of a lack of respect for women in cultures in which sons are highly valued and daughters are massively devalued.

But Somerville concludes that we should show an equal lack of respect for women, depriving them of the right to make deeply personal choices in their lives by imposing coercive legal measures upon them:

Moreover, testing unborn children for sex is the tip of the prenatal testing iceberg. Tests for many other conditions are already available and more are coming fast. The issues are how may these be used and how should they not be used — and what law governing abortion should be put in place to ensure that the Canadian values we want to enshrine regarding these tests are respected? Much as some politicians, including the Prime Minister, protest against doing so, they must start discussing abortion in Parliament. [emphases added]

Precisely how would Somerville propose to frame legislation that would make abortion illegal if based upon these tests, but otherwise leave the right to choose alone? Who knows what the reasons of women and girls seeking abortion may be? Clearly she’s after something much broader in scope, as she always has been.

A society in which women and men are equals not only on paper but in real life would provide little incentive for sex selection. Perhaps, then, we should be striving to create just such a society, rather than taking the current one in the very opposite direction by re-nationalizing wombs. But this is Stephen Harper’s Canada, heading holus-bolus in that very direction.

The timing of the current campaign, led by Conservative MPs with their “pro-life” media allies erupting in unison, is no accident. We don’t need a weatherman to tell which way this ill wind is blowing.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 28, 2012 6:39 PM.

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